Last year, with the help of my colleague Thaniya, I gathered a slop bucket of insights and anecdotes about the practice of auto-playing videos online. I did this to facilitate a conversation we were having at TED about the same topic. (We ultimately decided that only the user should decide when a video starts playing.)
Lately, however, the practice of autoplaying videos online and in apps is more prevalent than ever, as detailed in a recent Mashable article. This prompted me to share what I came up with last year.
Autoplay causes accessibility issues
- Non-sighted users often interact with websites through a screen reader, which audibly announces everything on the page as the user tabs through links and buttons. When these users land on a page with autoplay, the noise of the video drowns out — or at least competes with — their screen readers. For these people, autoplay is the equivalent of someone scrawling in Sharpie over the book they're trying to read.
- Adding a button to disable autoplay doesn't solve the problem for those with screen readers: autoplaying audio may drown out the screen reader's announcement of that button.
- On most browsers, autoplay occurs even in background tabs, ruining the experience of the focused tab as well.
- Delivering a different, non-autoplay experience to users with screen readers is unrealistic since there is currently no consistent or reliable way to detect when a screen reader is in use.
Autoplay eats up bandwidth..and more
- Autoplay means forced bandwidth consumption. Users have to consume at least part of any autoplaying video — until they click pause and/or configure the player to disable autoplay. Since bandwidth is a costly and/or rare commodity for many users in the world, autoplay means they're paying for something they didn't choose to consume.
- Although data caps are becoming more common for mobile data plans, most mobile OS makers have had the forethought to disable autoplay. However, this ignores the advent and adoption of tethering to mobile hotspots: these devices are also subject to caps set in data plans, and there is no programmatically discernible difference between a tethered laptop or desktop and one that is tethered to a data-capped mobile hotspot. In other words, the tethered laptop or desktop is automatically hoovering up precious mobile bandwidth.
- Autoplay uses limited system resources like memory and CPU without the user's consent; this can be especially problematic if a user has opened multiple tabs with videos.
- For websites that hope to have an international presence, autoplay can be a reputation killer in regions with steep bandwidth charges.
Experts frown on autoplay
Web standards bodies frown on autoplay
Even though the HTML5 spec allows for autoplay, the W3C notes in the spec: "Authors are also encouraged to consider not using the automatic playback behavior at all, and instead to let the user agent wait for the user to start playback explicitly."
When describing compromises for sites that insist on using autoplay, the WCAG (W3C Accessibility Group) notes: "Playing audio automatically when landing on a page may affect a screen reader user’s ability to find the mechanism to stop it because they navigate by listening and automatically started sounds might interfere with that navigation. Therefore, we discourage the practice of automatically starting sounds (especially if they last more than 3 seconds), and encourage that the sound be started by an action initiated by the user after they reach the page, rather than requiring that the sound be stopped by an action of the user after they land on the page."
Another standards body, the WHATWG, has this to say about the HTML5 autoplay attribute: "Authors are also encouraged to consider not using the automatic playback behavior at all, and instead to let the user agent wait for the user to start playback explicitly."
The A11Y Project – a community of web developers and users that produces accessibility recommendations – strongly recommends against use of autoplay.
Users really, really hate autoplay
I conducted a highly informal survey of user comments about autoplay from around the Web. I did my best not to cherry pick. For your enjoyment, here are some user quotes:
- "Autoplay ads are a surefire way to get me to just close the tab and get my information elsewhere."
- "If any advertiser in the industry reads this comment, I would ask them to think a moment. Ever heard of the concept of classical conditioning?. If people keep getting annoyed while your product video autoplays then they are being conditioned to hate your product unconsciously. The people who sell on your ads will make their money but you are ultimately damaging your band (sic)."
- "Remember when we said the age of interruption was dead and this is now the age of engagement. These things will kill the internet. I'd rather just pay for the internet than suffer what it's becoming. My sanity is being sold too cheaply."
- "personally, I think auto playing video is what killed Myspace"
- "I'm annoyed by autoplay period. Just because a friend posts a video, does NOT mean I want to watch it. And I have the lowest-level broadband you can get (best I can have out where I am), and the extreme limited connection speed means one person loading a video could make someone else's video hiccup or need to pause and load over and over again."
- "Intrusive, inappropriate and sucks up bandwidth together with your data."
- "With Adblock Plus and Element Hiding Helper I probably never will see auto-playing ads. I haven't seen an ad on a page or in a video for 8 wonderful years."
- "If videos with sound start popping up every time i open facebook, i'll stop opening Facebook."
- "How do you shut the auto play off?"
- "This will be their downfall (Facebook). I avoid sites that auto-play the videos. I can't stand the hesitation and drag when viewing the webpage. What ever happened to the "user experience”?"
- "I will never, ever by a product or patronize an establishment that uses auto-play."
- "Just like YT. Really sucks. Too much ads :-/"
- "I like to open multiple tabs to surf around and if one of those tabs has a video autoplaying I will just click the X and kill it without ever seeing the page."
- "Your job is to provide the information the user needs to make the right decision, not to make the decision for them."
- "youtube is specifically for videos, with each page being a video. It would not be appropriate just to copy that site purely because one of your pages has a video on it."
- "Video autoplay is not great if you are a screenreader user. Imagine you open up a new page with a video of Aqua's 'Barbie Girl' and you need to listen to the page in order to navigate your way to the controls of the video but can't hear the screenreader because Barbie Girl is blasting out in the background."
- Dear YouTube: Autoplay is a FAIL.I liked YouTube much better when I was more in control of which videos I was watching."
- "What ads? (Firefox, Adblock plus.)"
And my personal favorite user comment: "KILL IT WITH FIRE!!!"
Want more? Check out this lively Reddit thread, Dear websites that set their videos to autoplay: Please stop.
Videos that autoplay are problematic. They cause accessibility and usability issues. They can hurt your reputation. Sadly, however, I think they're here to stay. When we have to, let's at least try to implement them with care.